5 Mar

The land around our house (which also happens to be near where I grew up) is shrouded in legend.

There are famous legends, like the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, with it’s headless horseman and hapless teacher.  And then there’s the legend of the school named for that teacher, which always manages to close for a snow day regardless of only a few flakes having fallen from the sky.

Then there’s the legend of that great adventurer Henry Hudson, and the naming of a little town, Kinderhook, for its wealth of little children.  The town is also, according to legend, the source of one of the world’s favorite terms, O.K. It either has something to do with apples, or with the eighth president of the United States, Martin van Buren.

Speaking of old MvB, according to my mom, who had a friend (or possibly a friend of a friend) who lived in his house before it became a national park, there was a legend that, every year on his death day and on his birthday, the legs of the bed in which he died would fly off at high speed.  Apparently she had to stop using the bed for this reason.  Personally, I would have stopped using any bed made prior to 1862 for reasons other than that, mainly involving comfort.

Also in the realm of the spiritual world, there was the legend of the ghost that haunted my friend Alison’s house.  It was a very quirky ghost, taking vengeance on those in her very large family who were bad, and bestowing gifts upon those who were good, like my friend and her favorite brother and sister.  One year it even gave her a Christmas present; wrapped up in a very grubby old box, tied up with grubby old string was a beautiful, very old Dutch coin.

Then there were the legends of the underworld.  I remember one time meeting a friend’s father and telling him my name.  “Oh, you’re John’s daughter! I played cards with your dad at the casino beneath the X Cafe a few times.”  This came as a very great shock to me and my mother.  When I was a kid, we ate dinner frequently at that restaurant, it was one of the only good Italian restaurants in the area, but neither of us had ever heard that it housed a speakeasy and casino in its basement.  We also never knew that my father had been any sort of poker player, outside of a friendly game after a round of golf.  Legend has it that the restaurant was so good because it was run by the mafia, which also neatly explains the existence of the casino.

Perhaps it was the proprietors of the casino that lived in the amazing glass house tucked into the side of a hill under a decrepit, falling-down, old barn on a narrow dirt road.  According to legend (and to a friend of a friend of a friend), no one knew who lived in the house, or how it was built.  Just one day, poof! the friend of a friend of a friend who lived on this road, noticed an endless parade of limousines and fancy sport cars driving in and out of the abandoned old barn.  He walked down the road until he could get a good look at the hill upon which the barn perched and there was an amazing, modern house that no one (or at least he) had noticed before.

And so he came to school the next day and started spreading the legend of the mafia boss living on the old dirt road.  It was a legend that I was attracted to immediately.  The mafia! Living up here! Amongst the cows and fields and trailer parks of Columbia County!  As soon as school let out, I jumped in my truck and drove to the little dirt road.  I went down the hill and around the corner and craned my neck, and yes, there in the side of the hill was a beautiful, amazing, glimmering glass house.  But there were no men in dark sunglasses and shiny suits.  I went back many times but never saw any evidence that anyone lived there, let alone a mobster and his retinue of gangster molls and made men.

This past weekend, Isaac and I undertook a very chilly, frozen walk down this dirt road.  It was the first time I’ve been down it on foot.  It’s a wonderful old road, skirting a very wide, lazy bend in the Kinderhook Creek, lined with beautiful houses, fields, mature forests, giggling rills and craggy cliffs.  I was very excited to take this walk.  I thought maybe, just maybe, since we were on foot we would see one of the alleged black limousines.  But alas, we only saw one beat-up old, primer gray car.

But the house is still there.  And though it is a bit different than I remember it, it is still a fantastic house.  Very modern, but tucked coyly into a natural dip, it looks at home in its landscape.

I love living amidst these legends.  They make the landscape speak to me.  This is the place where a president was born.  Here is where Henry Hudson must have stood.  In this room Jesse Merwin may have flirted with the beautiful Katrina van Alen under the watchful gaze of Washington Irving.  Or maybe he didn’t, maybe that’s all a legend, too.

I think it’s that connection to history that I find appealing about cooking from old cookbooks.  I like hearing the stories and the legends of a meal.  This past weekend I got a chance to return to one of my favorites, Bert Greene’s Kitchen Bouquets, he of the legendary Snow Almonds.

We had a quantity of black lentils from Trader Joe’s that were begging to be used.  Now, I’m going to tell you a little secret here, one that may be hard to hear coming from such a hard-core beanophile as me.  I don’t like lentils.  At least, not all that much.  And not nearly as much as I love beans.

This is a hard cross to bear for poor Isaac, because if there’s one thing the man loves in all the world, it’s a proper bowl of lentils.  So, I looked for a recipe that might please both of us.  I wanted something a little more interesting, he wanted something with lentils in it.  And right there, in Bert’s chapter about cloves, was the perfect recipe: clove-scented Cornish game hens and lentils.

It’s a very easy dish to make.  First, make a compound butter of minced garlic and a wee pinch of ground cloves.  Then mince an onion, chop two carrots and a handful of parsley.  Stuff as much of that as you can into two Cornish game hens, truss them and set the remaining carrot mixture aside.  Finally, rub all but a knob of the compound butter all over the teeny tiny poultry, pour over some white wine and chicken stock and roast the hens in the oven, first at 400°F for 30 minutes, then at 350°F for 40 minutes, basting with the pan juices every 10 minutes.

While the hens are roasting boil the lentils with an onion studded with four cloves,  four smashed cloves of garlic and a sprig of thyme.  When the lentils are done, mix them with the reserved carrot mixture and the knob of compound butter.  Pull the hens out of the oven, put them on a plate and pour off all but a quarter-cup of the pan juices.  Tip the lentils into the roasting dish, mix in the pan juices and add more if the lentils look dry.  Nestle the hens on top of the lentils and put back into the oven for 20 minutes.  By this time you will be drooling with anticipation, so pull the roasting pan out of the oven and serve each guest a hen and a big scoop of lentils.

There are three things I love about this dish.  One: I love the thriftiness of the preparation.  Everything is used and used again throughout the meal  This carries the flavor through and satisfies my inner Depression-survivor that I think was bred into me from my grandmother.  Two: the flavor. Holy god this was a savory and satisfying meal.  Perfect for a blustery winter’s night spent next to the fire.  Three: the leftovers.  I doubled the amount of lentils (two cups) and we’ve eaten them (supplemented by scraps of the game hens) twice this week as leftovers, once warmed gently and served over a radicchio salad and once made into a soup with the leftover chicken stock.  Both of which were completely delicious and, once again, delightfully thrifty.

But while the meal was good, I’m not quite sure it was the stuff of legends. That said, if there had been any ghosts or dead presidents or bucloic mobsters floating around outside my kitchen window, I bet they were green with envy that they weren’t inside wrapped in the aromas and warmth of our cozy first floor.  It was cold outside.  And you never know, the headless horseman might have been out there, too.

4 Responses to “Legendary”

  1. Robin March 5, 2009 at 9:11 am #

    What a wonderful tour of your legendary home! Gorgeous pictures.

  2. jenny March 5, 2009 at 2:34 pm #

    You are going to leave us hanging here?! I was really hoping for some pictures of the glass “mafia” house. The concept of the house sounds so interesting, I wanted to see if my imagination matched your pictures.

  3. Christina March 6, 2009 at 10:18 pm #

    I wish TJs (or at least the TJs around here) still sold those black lentils. I, like Isaac, love me some lentils, and I used to cook those frequently.

    Martin van Buren is the one President to whom I am related . . . my lame little claim to fame. I find that spinning bed legs fact fascinating; I was always under the impression that he was downright boring!

    Never cooked Cornish Game hens before–I’ll have to give it a go.

  4. ann March 11, 2009 at 6:51 am #

    Robin — Thanks, I love it there :-)

    Jenny — I know! I wanted to include one, but they didn’t come out that great. And I think I’d feel a little weird including a picture of someone else’s home. I think I’d feel a little freaked out seeing a piccie of my home on another person’s website!

    Christina — That is so weird about MvB. He’s obviously my favorite president, and I mean, even Seinfeld thought he was cool enough to make fun of. Judging from the number of places around Columbia County that have signs saying “Martin van Buren drank here.” I have a feeling he was not a dull guy :-)

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